KINSHASA (Reuters) – Voting began in Congo’s second-post war election on Monday after poll organisers defied fears that a delay would be needed to deal with logistical problems and critics who called for a review because of irregularities.
After repeated delays, the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary vote turned violent in the capital at the weekend. Final rallies were cancelled due to clashes between rival supporters, security forces opened fire on crowds and the main presidential challenger was prevented from campaigning.
The polls – which pit President Joseph Kabila against 10 rivals while more than 18,500 candidates compete for 500 seats in parliament – will test the central African nation’s progress towards stability after decades of misrule and two wars in the last 15 years.
In the eastern lakeside town of Goma, which has seen some of the worst violence, polls opened slightly late but thousands of people lined up to cast their ballots.
“I am happy to have voted. I want change so I hope those that lose accept the results. We don’t want trouble,” Joel Mweso, a student, told Reuters.
A Reuters witness also saw residents in the capital, Kinshasa, voting after initial delays.
The last conflict in the mineral-rich state officially ended in 2003 but Congo remains plagued by pockets of instability and many people have yet to reap the dividends of eight years of relative peace.
In parts of the east, the vote will take place in areas still run by a plethora of local and foreign rebel groups.
Election commission chief Daniel Ngoy Mulunda said on Sunday the country would prove critics wrong by holding credible and peaceful elections.
“Everyone’s going to vote tomorrow, it’s going to be a celebration of democracy. The Congolese people are going to take the second step in the consolidation of their democracy. We have kept our promise,” he said on the eve of the vote.
The first post-war election in 2006 was seen as broadly free and fair but gunbattles erupted after the voting.
Doubts over the election have stemmed from delays throughout the process, which meant that preparations for the poll have been last-minute and, at times, chaotic.
United Nations troops and helicopters from Angola and South Africa have been called on to ferry election material to 60,000 polling stations across a nation the size of Western Europe with little infrastructure so some 32 million people can vote.
Provisional results are due on December 6.
However, even in the capital voters complained of last-minute confusion over where they were meant to be voting due to polling stations being moved and errors with voter lists.
The opposition has also protested that election lists were not properly vetted, leading to potential fraud. After outbursts of violence during the campaign, there are also fears of a contested result.
“COME A LONG WAY”
Addressing the nation on Sunday evening, Kabila said the security forces had taken all measures possible to protect the population and warned against a return to widespread violence.
“Our country has come a long way, from war and conflict of every type. We must take care not to go back to that,” he said.
A European Union observer mission on Sunday condemned moves by the police on Saturday to prevent Kabila’s rival, veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, from campaigning.
Kabila, who came to power when his father Laurent was assassinated in 2001 and then won the 2006 poll, has been seen by many as the favourite due to the advantages of incumbency.
The failure of the opposition to unite behind a single candidate – after Kabila’s camp pushed through a law scrapping the need for a run-off if no candidate secures a majority in the first round of voting – also bolstered his chances.
But Tshisekedi, who has spent decades in opposition and boycotted the last poll due to complaints of fraud, has drawn increasingly large crowds as his campaign, which started late, picked up momentum in the anti-Kabila West.
Peter Pham, director of the U.S.-based Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, said it appeared that Tshisekedi had cemented himself as the anti-Kabila vote amid frustrations at the slow pace of progress, even if no formal alliance was in place.
“Ironically, the government’s ham-fisted attempts to obstruct his campaign have only served to enhance his stature,” he said.
By David Lewis and Jonny Hogg